As expected, the government is trying again to restore compulsory amenities fees. I will do a detailed analysis of the bill tomorrow, but on an initial examination it is the same as the 2009 version that was rejected by the Senate.
I support unis being able to provide whatever services they like at whatever fee they determine. Let the market decide. But this amenities fee legislation should be rejected. These are my reasons:
1) It will force universities to provide non-academic services and student representation specified by the government. Universities should be able to make their own decisions about the right mix of services. We are yet to see draft guidelines which set out which services will be on the list, but the 2009 version had absurdly complex distinctions between what had to be funded from university money and what could be funded from student money. One factor that has changed since then is that the government’s guidelines could be disallowed by the House of Representatives.
2) The new obligations on the universities are unfunded – unless per student grants are increased they will have to come out of money formerly allocated to teaching. As the Rudd-Gillard government has cut per student funding in real terms every year it has been in office, and is now choking the supply of international students, it is unreasonable to impose any new obligations on universities. (Though admittedly in many cases this will just make legally binding what has been happening already).
3) There will be a price cap on the student amenities fee of $250 (indexed). I am sceptical of all price control, and this number seems to have been picked out of the air.
4) Students will be able to borrow the $250 under a new student loan scheme, SA-HELP. This creates extra complexity and administrative costs. Anyone who needs to borrow $250 will also need to borrow for tuition fees under HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP, and it would be preferable that they only needed to use one loan scheme for what is effectively the one transaction. SA-HELP has no upfront discount, but I think students will be able to engineer themselves one by taking out the loan and then repaying it with an ‘early’ bonus.
I fear VSU will end up being like WorkChoices – a controversial Coalition policy destabilises the policy status quo, creating the political space for a worse regulatory arrangement than the one we had before. Universities Australia backed the 2009 amenities legislation because they were so desperate to get the cash, when for reasons (1) to (3) above they would have opposed this legislation if Labor had proposed it instead of the pre-2006 arrangements.
30/9: The legislation is substantially the same as last year’s version. The main change is to move the list of things the new amenities fee can be spent on from guidelines to the statute itself. This presumably reflects the government’s nervousness about its own survival. They don’t want to risk a future Liberal minister altering the guidelines.
They intend for the new scheme to start on 1 January 2011. However it seems very unlikely that a new loan scheme could be up and running by then. It takes DEEWR forever to do anything, and there is a lot of system work at the uni level as well.